You are currently viewing Look to the future with the science navigator: interview with Luca Mercalli

Look to the future with the science navigator: interview with Luca Mercalli

Climate change, migrations, architecture, and energy issues. How is the world changing?

Considering the recent events, it is inevitable to wonder which will be the future of the planet and how the society will be structured in function of ongoing changes. The interview has been carried on with Luca Mercalli, a meteorologist, a climatologist, and a divulgator of science, indeed an activist in the debate against the climate change.

1 – Recently, due to the raising phenomenon of Fridays for Future and with the figure of Greta Thunberg, it has been evident how the new generation, in Italy as well as worldwide, carries about this issue. Which is the responsibility of these upcoming generations?

The generation that today has found expression in the FFF movement will undoubted be the one hit by climate change; then, it is reasonable that the same young people are asking for the guaranty of a better future on long perspective, a different one from the actual experts’ previsions in case of no drastic changes. Obviously, the protesting and supporting activities are fundamental modalities to find a community and to sustain the cause.

2 – Concerning the protests and the strikes that have marked the last few years, what could be the necessary choices that might make a difference? Not just on a practical level, but also regarding the listening since up to nowadays the perception felt is that on one hand there is a great participation on a mediatic level, on the other a lack of actual understanding of the issues at the core is perceived.

Assuming the vastity of the problem, there is no definitive answer. Nevertheless, an answer must be found by trying with all the fantasy and the scientific help possible. Personally, I strongly believe that creativity is a youthful prerogative able to introduce new ideas, even on the scientific field, since what has been discussed up to today is evidently insufficient.

Indeed, at this specific moment, there is a strong need for new ideas to face a new emergency, since it is not possible to lay on the scientific tradition that has led at this point. The need is the one of new solutions able to abandon the past and that propose a new scientific model that could be taken as a guide in the voyage towards the future.

The possible ways are multiple, but surely a strong political commitment is required because if the protests are not enough to provoke the interests of society, then the society itself should enter in the places of power, as political events such as the greens in Switzerland and Germany demonstrates by entering in the parliaments.

3 – From this point of view, the cases of Switzerland and Germany are considered as innovative in the political field. Regarding Switzerland, the news of abandonment of the nuclear energy is recent, a renunciation much discussed since it was largely sustained by people that consider that kind of energy as the only one able to satisfy the European requirements and limiting the environmental damages. What do you think of this position?

The issue is much complex. Indeed, solutions are usually proposed by those people who have a very limited view, or an opinion guided by interests. It is true that the nuclear energy does not create emissions during the production of the energy itself, but the environmental cost is not taken into consideration and it involves the maintenance of the systems, the primary matters needed for the production and the wastes produced at the end of the cycle.

The uranium, which is the material required for the production of the nuclear energy, is anyway a limited resource and the process to get it requires excavations in the quarries that causes environmental destructions during the mineral activity itself; consequently, those people supporting the nuclear energy and considering it as supportive of the planet, in fact are ignoring this extractive method that characterize it. Indeed, the wastes are not taken into consideration since they must be stored in security and no country wants to host them. Basically, the risk with the nuclear production is that to achieve a reduction of emission of few years, a bigger damage would be created by the radioactive toxins produced by implants and the consequences will be paid by the youngest and future generations, considering the longevity of the radioactive wastes.

Then, the concept is that the nuclear energy is by itself with a dead end. In places where it is present today, it might be exhausted in few years, but it is absurd to invest on it. From this point of view, who sustain the nuclear activity wants to guarantee a status quo, but the point is another one: people should consume less and they should not try to find palliative solutions to maintain a system that does not work. If a new horizon will be accepted, concerning sobriety intended as sobriety of consumption and a limit of excess, then also the renewable energies will be sufficient. Anyway, it is no longer possible to maintain the actual conditions or, even worse, to solve climate changings without renouncing or limiting the present consumptions.

4 – You have recalled a wonderful term, sobriety, a concept that does not belong to the actual known social paradigm. How can “sobriety” represent an acceptable solution?

The scarce attitude of the present society towards sobriety in terms of consumption is, among other things, a root of denialism mentioned above. The fear is that, starting from the environmental problem, the situation will cause a reduction of the quality of life, even if it is not recurrent. If from one side what is required is a number of renounces, necessary because such a quality of life as the present one is not sustainable, on the other it will just be a change of habits.

I will make an inconvenient example to many young people as well: one of the most relevant way of polluting is traveling by plane, but nobody from every generation wants to renounce to it, especially with the offers and the low cost trips. How many people can renounce to travel by plane? Still not many since it is perceived as a waiver. Obviously, I do not state that nobody can travel by plane but I might suggest that it should be intended as a technological tool serving the actual necessity and that it could be used in extreme occasions.

5 – Here comes into play what for us might be a hope, so Architecture. In your opinion could it be an ally in the battle against the climate change?

Honestly it is, especially in two functions. From one hand, it might be useful for the mitigation, for example if I have an energy saving house with solar panels, probably I will reduce the emissions and I will contribute by staying in the 2 grades planned instead of the 5 envisaged if there will be no actions regarding it. To date the goal is to limit the increasing temperature up to 2 degrees and architecture is an indispensable tool to accomplish the reduction of emissions.

Therefore, architecture could help a lot for the progressive adaptation at the following conditions: for the damages already done, it might result helpful to design structures able to protect people in case of an aggravation of the situation. For example, if in future the cities of the Po Valley will become hotter, as stated by experts, and if they will reach the 50 degrees such as in some areas of India, the necessity will be the one of designing according to sustainable principles to minimize the environmental impact and to protect the inhabitants, especially the more fragile ones, from possible pathologies related to the pollution and to the increasing of temperatures.

6 – Why is there still a huge denialism from economic and political entities concerning these issue, even if data are visible to everybody?

The denialism is not a prerogative of the State, there are many inhabitants that deny the actual climate change phenomenon for different reasons. Concerning the authorities that refuse the evident current climate issues, those reasons guiding this denying attitude are obvious, starting from those interests in the oil and combustible fuels that has a huge economic value.

Instead, considering the individuals, when there is not a real economic interest to maintain, it is often possible to talk about a problem of social psychology. Nevertheless, the problem is evident: we do not want to abandon our comfort zone, despite the evidence of the problem, because it requires citizens to have direct responsibility, actively participating in the construction of change by making choices – although not always comfortable – that can make a difference.

7 – Which actions do you refer to?

The solutions that might be adopted are multiple but with a common denominator: to take a step back, especially for what concerns the everyday habits, from the choice of the car up to the trips by plane. Obviously these are renounces needed, and this is why many people deny reality.

Moreover, the same refuse of the climate change issue allows an auto exoneration of the problem itself, favoring the individual irresponsibility instead of a necessary conscious position.

8 – So, the need of a radical change of the social model is evident, in order to reestablish a sober one, especially for what concerns the consumption. In your opinion, which might be the new social models that we could develop?

I do not have a solution; for this reason I support the call for individual creativity for the invention of a new social model. There are shy proposes that should be taken into consideration and examined since they suggest an alternative way to the excessive economic growth.

I can state what will not work anymore but I cannot define what will work in future, especially considering that there are few scientists who are currently working on it and that it is not a common argument. The core of the issue is that, in a world of defined measures, an unlimited growth is not possible. Anyway, even if the concept is easy and essential, the world economy does not want to change direction.

Nowadays, we must reprogrammed the fundamental values of society in function of the physical limits both of human beings and of the planet. What dominates is the physics of the planet, not the economy or the humans’ desires that are subjected to physical confinement. The need is the one of a bio-economy related to the physical and biological reality of the planet; few models are present, but they should be further explored.

9 – As already stated, in this colorful canvas Architecture is actually included as a study of new possibilities. The argument regards as this matter will be insert in the urban issues as well: how do you imagine the development of the sustainable city in the future?

Fortunately there are many urban courses at the university that are envisioning a sustainable and ecological city. Concerning the urban issue, it is obviously related to the architecture: on one hand I can design a sustainable building, on the other I must insert it into a sustainable environment as well. Usually, the principle mentioned before are valid: the design of an house or a city must be related to the concept of limited emissions and it must function to strength the resilience, indeed the capacity of being protected by future climate events.

With this prospective it is necessary to take a look not just on the phenomena seen up to nowadays but to rely on future previsions. For example, if I have to build an house of which roof must resist to winds of maximum 150 km/h according to scientific tables, I have to recall science that explicits that if today the wind have a specific force, tomorrow it might be stronger since the aggression of atmospheric phenomenon is getting higher; consequently, I have to predict potential future and stronger damages in a range of 50 years.

The same discourse might be done regarding the sea level, since if it will increase, the geo-urbanism will be fundamental. The goal is about designing now what will be resistant to the changes, even envisioning the moving of areas of cities to areas where this problem is not evident or maybe trying to understand how to protect certain plots from potential flood, as shown for the city of Venice.

10 – From this point of view, the situation of Venice is catastrophic and it shows blindness for these kinds of problematics. Which might be the results?

It is not possible to mention real blindness because in many sectors there is the consciousness of this type of problems. The real issue is another one: people have built an economic model that blackmails any alternative. Whoever wants to make a change, even me and you if we were suddenly in power, could not realize more than the 10% of what has been said until now.

This happens because the economic interests would blackmail us in whatever possible way and it occurs when the environmental and the working occupancy or industrial problems are compared. Looking to the Ilva of Taranto, the problematic aspect is recognized since everybody knows that it pollutes and it kills, but it also produces 10.000 places of work. So, what do people do about it?

11 – Don’t you think that these working places might be occupied in an alternative way?

Obviously I do think so, but at the same time a non-political program is needed, but only one that is the result of the conciliation of a govern of which members agree, inhabitants included: just in this way a transformation is possible. As mentioned before, it does not happen because it is considered the actual economic interest. As a matter of fact, those that want to shut down the Ilva are addressed with problems such as the consequent unemployment of 10.000 people. Consequently, the matter is closed and palliative solutions are sought.

12 – In fact, the impression is the one of considering political personalities of different kinds for which the priority is to maintain the current economic status, for example the Trump experience in America. How long can this last?

The Trump’s U.S.A. are blatantly biased since this interest has been a main issue of the elections. In Italy, it is not possible to state that there are the same interests, but the actions are still few because each change would cause the renounce of specific interests. For example, the plastic tax fits this concept perfectly: until people ask even more strongly to want these measures, they will not be implemented. As a matter of fact, as soon as the plastic tax has been raised, the industries have raised their voices as much as the consumers by sinking the problematic and transforming it into a mediatic tam-tam for its own sake.

13 – Therefore, the difficulty concerns a large part of the population that has the will of reducing the waste and the consumption of plastic. At the same time, it appears very problematic if considered the disinterest to methods such as the bulk shopping that instead might generate a change in the eating habits so it could be a helpful tool against climate change according to many scientists. How do you think that diet and feed might change things?

I would start by saying that diet is not the most important tool because it is a generic way to find excuses and to divert the attention on the fact that the climate change affects all of the matters of people’s life; it would be wrong to make a ranking since the attitude should completely change. In this case, the diet counts for the 15% and it represents one of the easiest ways to deal with because the food issues are subjective. For example, the vegetarianism can be adopted even without specific legislations. Instead, the problem regards the quantity of plastic involved in the food sector and in the GDO (mass-market retailing, Ed.), even if few timid experiences of bulk food shops that should be encouraged is taking space into the market.

To what already said, I would like to add the fact that, since the focus is on architecture, this last is important as much as the diet if not more: the emissions of European countries comes mostly from houses with an incidence of 30 – 40 % on the environment. For this reason, architecture is the fundamental field to act in. I suggest to everybody to think that instead of changing their car, why do not people take advantage of Eco-bonuses to isolate better their home? For example, in my case I have reduced the wastes of my home of the 80% and this is reflected to the savings, economic as well, for each single family since I do not pay what I can produce alone.

14 – What is your hope for the future? In your opinion, might there be scenarios more probable than others?

The need is the one of falling with a parachute and this is the moment to fabricate it. The 2 degrees and the half of a meter level of the see are already an inevitable risks. A victory would be to avoid the worst prevision, which is a part of the parachute, by designing a resilient world trying not to be hurt too much.

15 – In which way do you think that society will absorb the migration flux deriving from the climate change?

I have no idea of how it will be possible to deal with the moving of hundreds of thousands of people. These numbers are of evidence since areas such as India and Africa will suffer for the lacks of different nature or they will become unlivable due to the specific hot-humid climate.

16 – Many people have expressed the fear of a social revolution also due to the current political situation. Do you think that it will be possible to deal with this change in a pacific way?

The risk is the one of a great conflict, since the people’s migrations caused by climatic change and the problems of the resources related to economy might led to the explosion of a fight. Consequently, it is necessary to work to mitigate these phenomena having the goal of sustainability but especially of the peace.

Translated into English by Elisa Goi.